The role of goodwill in communication

Some people seem to have no trouble making new acquaintances, whereas others find it difficult to navigate ‘small talk’ and getting to know people. Research has shown that people who have more social connections are happier than those with few, and people with a habit of chatting to strangers tend to attract more positive opportunities in life. All of which means that extraverts tend to have an easier time than introverts.

As an introvert, I used to view small talk as an exchange of meaningless information that followed a set of rules I didn’t understand. It felt awkward and stressful. That all changed when I started working with people with intellectual disabilities and helping with their social gatherings. What I observed was that virtually all the communication between the people I was supporting was made up of cheerful greetings. Their exchanges conveyed no ‘content’ in the sense of information transfer, but instead expressed an abundance of goodwill towards one another. Stripped of the stress of overthinking what to say, these natural folks simply expressed their joy at being together, using words, smiles, hugs and laughter. That’s when I realised that small talk is not about the words we speak, but about the intention behind the words.

When we worry about what to say, we convey mistrust of the person we are talking to. We imbue them with the power to harm us with their judgement, and conversation is like trying to pass a test.

Whereas when we assume an attitude of goodwill towards the other person, we naturally find ourselves smiling. Our words flow more easily as we focus on helping them feel more at ease. Regardless of whether these small interactions turn into ongoing friendships, goodwill brightens the day for us both.


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